An Overview of Teaching Reading to ELLs

An Overview of Teaching Reading to ELLs

Learning how to read is a complex process for all students. When you are teaching reading to ELLs, there is the added challenge that they are learning the vocabulary of English as they learn how to read. Some ELLs have the benefit of knowing how to read in their native language. This is helpful as many of the same skills will transfer over as they learn how to read in English. For young ELLs they are learning to read for the first time. They have the benefit of classroom instruction that is generally designed to help them learn how to read. The most challenging group of students are those that are older and not literate in their native language.  For these students, teachers will want to use many of the same strategies as for young students but integrate content information into the text selection that they are using.

There are five main components of teaching reading. Here is an overview of the different components of reading with strategies to assist ESOL students.


Phonics is the relationship between sounds and the letter or letters used to write it. My biggest tip is to use pictures as you teach phonics to ELLs. This helps students to connect words that they are learning how to read with their English meaning. Word sorts are a great way to help students find phonetic patterns. Students can then read books or simple sentences that have those word patterns. Read more about teaching phonics to ELLs

soft g words

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. Again pictures are key for helping ELLs pick up new vocabulary as they practice sounds. Read more about teaching rhyming words to ELLs.



Improving vocabulary is key for ELLs. There are many strategies for increasing student’s vocabulary knowledge. Vocabulary instruction can be direct and indirect.

Students learn vocabulary indirectly when they listen to books being read aloud, read on their own, and listen to others talking.

Direct vocabulary instruction can take place before, during, and after reading a book. For guided reading, it is helpful to preselect one – five words that you think students are unfamiliar with and are important to the meaning of the book. Try and avoid choosing words that have rich context clues. During reading is a great time to model using context clues so that students can learn how to discover the meaning of unfamiliar words independently as they are reading. Reflection questions can incorporate vocabulary from a text. This way students are encouraged to go back and reread a section as they answer the question and think about the meaning of those new words. Here are additional ideas for teaching vocabulary to ELLs.

Context Clue task cards


Reading comprehension is extracting meaning from what you are reading. One difference between teaching reading to a native English speaker and ESL student is that sometimes ELLs are able to decode words but do not understand what they are reading. This is most common in older ELLs. Some strategies for improving reading comprehension including using picture walks to help build background knowledge before students read a book. This also helps students to preview new vocabulary and practice oral language skills. Use short comprehension checks as a way for students to show their understanding of what they are reading. It is important to ask students higher thinking level questions. Students need exposure to these questions to be able to understand more complex texts.

Some reading comprehension skills students need practice with are finding the main idea of a text, comparing and contrasting, retelling, and summarizing.

Compare and Contrast Task Cards


Fluency is the ability to read words accurately, with appropriate speed, and with expression. This can be challenging for some ELLs. Especially reading with expression. Sometimes students will become experts at decoding but do not fully comprehend what they are reading. This will impact their reading expression. Having students practice reading out loud is a good way to improve reading fluency. This must be balanced with preventing students from becoming self-conscious that they will read a text incorrectly. Choral reading is a great way to give ELLs practice both reading out loud and hearing fluent reading. Listening to fluent reading is another way to help improve the fluency for ELLs.  Students can also listen to read alouds or recorded books. Here are other ideas for teaching reading fluency to ELLs

spring fluency strips

Oral Language Development

Oral language is made up of phonology, grammar, morphology, vocabulary, discourse, and pragmatics. For ELLs it is important to add in oral language development as a part of reading instruction. One strategy is to use structured, academic conversations to guide students speaking development.


Why Do English Learners Struggle with Reading gives an overview of teaching reading to ELLs. It also goes over ways to differentiate language differences from a learning disability when students struggle with reading.
teaching reading to ELLS

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